History waits for no movie and recent transformative events in the former Soviet Union may have already dated this diverting romantic thriller. Touted as the first US film shot entirely on location in the Soviet Union, BACK IN THE U.S.S.R. provides an intriguing glimpse of "glasnost" in
Moscow during the tumultuous Gorbachev era. This absorbing sociological backdrop is more interesting than the shopworn sub-Hitchcockian intrigues.
Plot machinations are set in motion with the excavation of a chest containing a precious Russian art treasure: a religious icon depicting the fabled Black Madonna. While transporting the treasure into town, a solemn, bearded monk is violently waylaid and the icon is stolen. Meanwhile, it's the
last day in the U.S.S.R. for Archer Sloan (Frank Whaley), a vacationing American student. Curious about the nation's publicized changes, he had signed up for a group tour that covered all the official sights but still yearns to experience the "real Russia." As a citizen living that reality, the
young and lovely Lena (Natalya Negoda) works as a reluctant neophyte hooker to survive these new uncertain times.
Unresponsive and unpaid, she gets booted out of the hotel suite of a boorish Englishman, Stanley (Constantine Gregory), who we learn is carrying the stolen icon in his valise. Cocky with his success, he attempts to renegotiate financial arrangements with his intended buyer in a tense telephone
conversation. As Stanley showers, Lena creeps back and steals the valise. She runs into trouble in the lobby with the annoying hotel doorman but Archer gallantly comes to her aid and sees her to a taxi. He asks Lena to show him around town and they arrange to meet later at a local nightclub. The
monk looks on ominously. The nervous Stanley goes to meet his buyer, Chazov (Brian Blessed), without the icon and gets murdered for his failure and greed.
Archer meets Lena at a rock club with her roommate, Georgi (Ravil Issyanov), who makes ends meet as a low-level black marketeer. The trio travels back to the cramped apartment the young Russians share with a senile doctor. Archer and Lena have a failed romantic interlude which propels the
disquieted American back to his hotel where the monk awaits him, demanding the valise and threatening to call the police. Archer backtracks, grabs the bag and hops into a cab. The drunken cabbie abandons the lad in a deserted part of town where he gets robbed and beaten unconscious by thugs.
Assuming that the "Russian Mafia" stole the icon, the young trio get deeply involed with the local criminal subculture. One gangster in particular, Kurilov (Roman Polanski), is especially threatening.
The plot thickens as Archer gets blamed for the murder of Stanley. He and Lena must avoid the police as they search for the icon and the monk who can clear his name. There follows a briskly paced series of episodes featuring sudden violence, shifting allegiances, surprising revelations and much
local color before a climactic confrontation of most of the involved parties.
BACK IN THE U.S.S.R. invites viewers to identify with Archer as a sympathetic stranger in a strange land--a situation with many cinematic antecedents. The villain Chazov derides the debased modern character of Russian life in favor of the glorious past while the film itself evokes memories of
similarly themed but far superior films: Carol Reed's THE THIRD MAN, Alfred Hitchcock's remake of his THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and Polanski's FRANTIC leap to mind. These stories feature American innocents abroad, who learn--often with the help of an enigmatic native--the painful and humbling
lesson that the world is a far darker and complex place than they had previously imagined.
By evoking these memories, BACK IN THE U.S.S.R. damns itself as second rate. While there are good performances, there are no great characters. The locations are authentic and attractive but they are not used imaginatively nor do we get a distinct sense of place. Moreover, the film lacks a great
suspense set-piece--no one clings precariously to a national monument, there's no thrilling chase through the sewers, no showdowns in fabulous exotic locales. This may reflect a lack of budget as much as a lack of inspiration.
The participation of the great banished filmmaker Roman Polanski is both pleasurable and problematic. While in exile, Polanski directed the underrated FRANTIC wherein Harrison Ford has a harrowing adventure in Paris that puts BACK IN THE U.S.S.R. to shame. An efficient actor, Polanski starred in
several of his films and made an indelible cameo appearance in CHINATOWN, a modern film noir classic that is also relevant; both films adopt a cynical conspiratorial view of crime, business and politics and Polanski's Kurilov echoes the earlier role in which he slits Jack Nicholson's nose.
Kurilov, a larger part, commits comparable violence to the hero's body but this is a softer characterization. Tough but charismatic, he is more likable than the ostensible hero.
Frank Whaley's central performance suggests Joseph Cotton in THE THIRD MAN or Jimmy Stewart in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH as reinterpeted by Michael J. Fox; the once-charming "aw shucks" idealism and middle American naivete has been curdled by pique and narcissism into a perhaps justified but
certainly whiny self-pity. This offputting effect may be accidental or an intentional critique may be at work. In contrast Natalya Negoda (LITTLE VERA) is totally beguiling and displays genuine star potential. Her eyes convey depths that this little movie does not dare explore.
With its flaws and limitations, BACK IN THE U.S.S.R. is most worthwhile for its marginalia and subtexts. The end credits are followed by a silent image of a square crowded with smiling waving Russian children. The film provides a rare opportunity to see everyday Russian life in a mainstream
Hollywood narrative. Just how much is accurate is hard to tell but there is a distinct impression of a curtain being pulled back to reveal a troubled society in transition.
In the film's most inspired conceit, Archer and Lena have their first kiss in the loud and gaudy nightclub in front of a movie screen. Projected on and around them are dramatic b&w scenes of WWII battles, hearkening back to an earlier era of international alliances. BACK IN THE U.S.S.R. may not be
Hitchcock, but it isn't half bad. (Violence, profanity, nudity, sexual situations.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1992
- Rating: R
- Review: History waits for no movie and recent transformative events in the former Soviet Union may have already dated this diverting romantic thriller. Touted as the first US film shot entirely on location in the Soviet Union, BACK IN THE U.S.S.R. provides an intr… (more)